Saturday, 29 October 2016

REVIEW: The Answer - Solas

Northern Ireland quartet The Answer have been releasing albums for a decade now. From their debut Rise album they made a firm mark on the UK's rock scene, opening for the likes of Aerosmith and The Who, as well as gaining a special guest slot on AC/DC's 2008/9 Black Ice world tour. Two great albums in the form of Everyday Demons and Revival followed, but in recent times The Answer's story has stalled somewhat.

Their past two efforts, 2013's New Horizon and last year's Raise A Little Hell, whilst solid rock n roll albums, were missing a certain something. Both albums felt almost like the band were trying too hard, ticking all the boxes on paper, yet missing that certain spark and personality that made their earlier efforts so good.

Enter Solas. From the moment the swirling atmospheric intro fades in, it's clear this is not just another Answer album. James Heatley's steady beat behind the sparse guitars and dirty bass really drive home the otherworldly vibe. Most startling though is Cormac Neeson's vocals. We're used, by now, to hearing his banshee wail to kick things into overdrive from the get go, yet here he opts for a low growl, perfectly completing the picture. The chorus is a celtic gospel chant of the album's title track, the reverb drenched harmony really driving the new approach home.

This feel continues straight into the haunting Beautiful World, but the boys from County Down don't pussyfoot around for too long, the distorted guitars and a despairing wail from Neeson showing around the 1 minute 40 mark that they can still raise the volume when they need to, even if the ultimate effect is something entirely new. The acapella final line delivering the sort of spine tingling chills the band first did on the likes of No Questions Asked from their debut.

Not that it's all bleak atmospheric fare. Belfast's Streetwise Samba Band add their celtic shuffle to the upbeat Battle CryLeft Me Standing shows the band haven't forgotten how to write a catchy rock tune during their evolution, and Demon Driven Man has absolutely all of the groove, as well as some tasty guitar licks courtesy of Paul Mahon. The six stringer in particular has never sounded better than he does here. Relieved of riff duties, for the most part, in favour of the overall melody of the songs, the freedom and space he's had to work within each tune's structure means that when his lead work does come to the fore, it's all the more prominent, and thus given even more impact. Nowhere is this more pronounced than on standout track Being Begotten, a constantly building bluesy number with some just outstanding playing.

It's clear throughout the album that the band have leaned heavily on their celtic roots. Thief of Light in particular could be an old Irish folk song, and there's just as much acoustic guitar and mandolin throughout the album as there is wailing Les Paul.
Ultimately Solas feels like an album The Answer wanted to make, rather than one they thought they should. It is simultaneously nothing like the band have made before, yet the truest Answer album to date. A sterling return to form.


Beautiful World
Battle Cry
Untrue Colour
In This Land
Thief Of Light
Being Begotten
Left Me Standing
Demon Driven Man
Real Life Dreamers

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Why Remain really lost the Brexit vote

There's a fascinating piece on Politico this morning from Daniel Korski. Korski was deputy director of Cameron's policy unit, and was intricately involved in both the renegotiation of the UK's EU membership and the subsequent referendum campaign.

It's a long read, covering the renegotiation process itself, as well as the campaign. In it, Korski attempts to identify why Stronger In lost the referendum. Mercifully, it's an in depth analysis forgoing the 'frustratingly simplistic' reasons - as Korski himself points out - that have been mooted for the result thus far.

That said, it still makes some erroneous assumptions and conflations. Most of all though, it gives an incredible insight, seemingly lost on Korski himself, as to an underlying reason that Stronger In lost the referendum, namely, contempt for the electorate.

One of the accusations levelled at Cameron was that the renegotiation was a sham. I too am guilty of making this assumption, though I am happy to have been proven wrong by this piece. Korski describes in great detail the sheer amount of effort it took in order to extract the terms that Cameron did.

"Cameron was tireless; he visited every EU country and spoke to every leader several times. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Europe Minister David Lidington worked with their counterparts, and former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair were brought in to help.
In support of these high-level efforts, we designed a diplomatic campaign for every European country unlike anything the U.K. has conducted since the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Each British ambassador was tasked with taking the argument for reform into the public realm and putting forward the key points in private to the most important decision-makers."

It is clear that far from the sham some ardent eurosceptics would have us believe the renegotiation was, sincere and high level efforts were made to curry favour and to get European leaders on side in order to fundamentally change the nature of the UK's relationship with the EU. Nevertheless, Cameron found himself beating his head against a brick wall.

"Most saw the talks as a nuisance to be dealt with, dangerous to Europe, or damaging to their political careers... Officials in the newly elected Socialist government in Portugal, for example, refused to budge on any of our demands and were deeply skeptical of our motives... Sweden wanted the U.K. to remain in the European bloc, but could under no circumstances agree to what we were asking... the European Parliament saw it as a bid for special treatment and, eventually, as an attempt to violate the EU’s basic freedoms. Juncker seemed to be seeking to give the U.K. a fair deal — as long as it didn’t require too fundamental a reform."

As a result of this obfuscation Korski regards the deal Cameron got as nothing short of miraculous. But it merely serves to highlight just how averse to reform the EU really is. Whilst operating under the assumption Cameron hadn't really tried, one could make the argument that a less europhile Prime Minister may well have extracted more favourable terms for our membership and thus we would not have voted to leave.

However, it is clear reading Korski's piece that Cameron and his team really did try to get clear, fundamental reforms for the UK, and they simply weren't forthcoming. This should really lay to rest any argument that we could have voted remain, in order to reform and reshape the EU in our own image.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post though, it's the lack of respect for the electorate that really shines through. Korski describes Cameron's emergency brake on EU workers claiming in-work benefits as "too complex to explain to ordinary voters". The condescension is almost unbelievable. Whilst I'm sure no-one would argue that these things are anything but complicated, the assumption that the great unwashed are too thick to comprehend it, especially when faced with arguably the most important plebiscite this country has had in decades, is risible.

The campaign apparently made similar assumptions with regards to the protections secured for the City.

"Unfortunately, Osborne’s deal required a master’s degree in financial regulation to explain. The package was too complicated to become a key part of the campaign. And anyway we were wary of getting boxed into a position where it looked like we had mainly worked to get the bankers in the City a good deal."

Again, one would never assume that these things are anything but highly complicated, but the outright dismissal of using the concessions in the campaign as being over the heads of the electorate doesn't half rankle.

Note also the aversion of wanting to seem like Cameron had worked to secure a deal for the City. The assumption clearly being that the public would not see this as an important safeguard for the most important part of our economy and instead just scream 'ugh, bankers!' whilst ticking Leave in the voting booth.

This cynicism is also highlighted in the, ultimately abandoned attempts, to manipulate the franchise in favour of a Remain vote. There were plans to extend the franchise to 16 year olds, which were discarded for political reasons. Similarly, an attempt to resurrect the Conservative manifesto pledge to extend the vote to Britons overseas was ditched when it ran afoul of the Electoral Commission. No attempt to make the case for EU membership, just an exploration of ways in which to game the system.

There's certainly an element of living in a bubble evident in Korski's account. No more so is this pronounced than in his discussion of the economic dangers of leaving.

The biggest folly of the Remain campaign was the conflation of the EU with the Single Market. Everyone could see that there were plenty of successful countries outside of the EU, including the likes of Norway who are nevertheless members of the Single Market.

This, more than anything, was why the electorate rejected the forecasts of economic armageddon made by Stronger In. Korski claims that they 'did not have to invent the dangers', yet that is precisely what they had done. The assumptions made by their models were refuted almost as soon as they were published.

Yet Korski, and apparently by extension the remain campaign, was so far removed from reality that they believed the economic case was done and dusted. "We won the economic argument so comprehensively and so early that it was seen as a given, rather than core to the decision." The arrogance on display, and sheer detachment from reality, is as hilarious as it is terrifying.

"I think we were right to focus the campaign on the economic case. Where we went wrong was in our inability to connect the economic costs and benefits of the decision to ordinary people’s lives. The European single market was too esoteric a concept.

Meanwhile, Vote Leave happily ignored the facts and distorted the figures. Voters didn’t believe us when we told them that we had calculated that leaving the EU would make the average household some £4,300 worse off. But Leave’s argument that Britain was “sending” £350 million a week to Brussels was believed."

Once again the electorate are dismissed as insufficiently intelligent to grasp the 'esoteric' concept of the Single Market, despite almost every refutation of Stronger In's economic claims centering around the distinction between the the EU and the EEA.

Furthermore, I've yet to come across a Leave voter who didn't know that the £350m figure was a gross figure and thus not an accurate one. They saw the spin and mathematical contortions behind that claim just as easily as they did those behind the £4300 figure. But acknowledging this scuppers the Remainer argument that voters were somehow duped into voting to Leave the EU.

But this contempt with which the government and the remain campaign treated the electorate was pronounced throughout the campaign, and has been in the aftermath. Leavers have been portrayed as everything from knuckle dragging idiots to racist little englanders wanting to retreat from the world.

There's undoubtedly some unsavoury characters within the Brexiteer ranks, just as there is on the other side of the argument. But the overwhelming majority of us want Britain to look outwards to the world rather than being stuck in the parochial EU.

One of the more fascinating and heartening things that has come from the entire debate is the consensus that has grown around removing global trade barriers and pursuing trade deals with as many nations as possible, regardless of whether one believes we are better placed to do that ourselves or as part of the EU. A welcome contrast to, for example, the protectionist instincts currently being displayed by both main candidates in the US Presidential campaign.

Korski laments that "the case that it was possible to be both independent and European was not made." On the contrary, an independant UK co-operating and trading with it's European neighbours whilst not bound by political union, is precisely the case we on the Leave side have been making for years. Thankfully, that was the argument that won out.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Remainers are paying the price for their dishonesty in the campaign

In the weeks and months following the vote to leave the European Union, much of the debate has centred around precisely what form Brexit will take. The lack of an official Leave plan, coupled with Cameron's arrogance in refusing to lay any groundwork for the eventuality of a Leave vote, means the nature of our withdrawal is still very much up in the air.

Most of this centres around whether or not the UK should remain a member of the EEA, otherwise known as the single market. As I and many others argued relentlessly during the referendum campaign, the EU and the single market are not the same thing, which is precisely why all the protestations of economic doom that the Remain side propagated were a nonsense. From Twitter's echo chamber, to newspaper commentators, right up to the Prime Minister himself, the false conflation of the EU with the single market was one of, if not the, most erroneous facet of the campaign.

Now it seems those chickens have come home to roost. So called 'soft-leavers' such as myself, who see a transitional EEA or 'Norway' style arrangement as a safe, economically neutral means of extracting ourselves from political union with Europe, now find ourselves on the same side as the likes of Nick Clegg and Nicola Sturgeon in arguing for continued single market membership. This is not a good thing. 

Had the Remain side forgone the temptation to depict leaving the European Union as an act of economic self-harm, instead focusing on the arguments predicated upon political union, then now, in the aftermath of a leave vote, they could credibly argue along with liberal leavers, that ok, we shall leave political union, but there is a strong economic case for maintaining single market membership in the short to medium term. 

Ironically, this is far and away the most popular version of Brexit too. A pre-referendum poll had a clear 57% of voters, including 79% of Remainers and 42% of Leavers, backing a Norway style arrangement. Moreover, maintaining current trading arrangements over restricting free movement is the majority opinion too, with a ComRes poll this past week showing a preference for securing trade deals over cutting immigration by 49% to 39%.

This is, as it happens, a false dichotomy. The EEA Agreement contains provisions that can be utilised to curb freedom of movement, giving lie to the need to choose one or the other. Ironically, many leavers now find themselves making this case in order to counter Remainers, our new PM amongst them, who believe their own rhetoric and have taken the Brexit vote as a vote entirely against immigration. Vociferous Kippers aside, this simply isn't the case.

Given the overwhelming support for continued single market membership, this should be an easy case to make. However, the calls by some MPs and commentators to ignore the referendum result entirely and stay in the EU, has meant that the public is sceptical of any arguments from former Remainers to stay in the single market, seeing it as an underhanded attempt to maintain EU membership by the back door. 

Their dishonesty in the campaign has trashed their credibility, regardless of whether their arguments about the UK's continued EEA membership have any merit. As a result, they now fight an uphill battle, and liberal leavers find their cogent arguments weighed down by the baggage of their former adversary's deceit.